Chemistry

Why Arsenic is Commonly Found in Poisonings



Tweet
Heather Brennan's image for:
"Why Arsenic is Commonly Found in Poisonings"
Caption: 
Location: 
Image by: 
©  

Arsenic: Is there any better way to subtly do away with your enemies? Everyone from Nero to the Borgias to Agatha Christie has been a fan of it at some point in time. In the literary world arsenic remains one of the most popular poisons of all time. In real life it is just as well-liked and has a long and fascinating history as a tool for murder.

Arsenic is a relatively common element and most of us are exposed to it in very minute amounts on a daily basis. Our bodies even require a tiny amount of it to function properly. The important word is tiny. In its most common form, arsenic trioxide, it is extremely toxic and can kill an adult with a mere one eighth of a teaspoon.

The first recorded use of arsenic as a poison was in A.D. 55, when Nero used it to dispose of Britanicus. Since then it has played a role in some of history’s most interesting murders. In the early 1500s, the Borgia family rose to prominence. Pope Alexander IV and his children, Cesare and Lucretia Borgia, decided to take advantage of a church law that allowed the property of the deceased to be seized by the church in cases of untimely death. They would actively encourage cardinals to accumulate wealth and then invite them over for dinner. The unsuspecting cardinals would be served a wine laced with arsenic, leading to their untimely demise. Ironically, the Pope passed after accidentally imbibing some of his own treacherous wine.

It became known as inheritance powder and was used by many to hasten the death of a “loved one” so that insurance money could be collected. Mary Cotton (1832-1873) had great success with arsenic poisoning for many years. She is believed to have killed more than twenty people, including her husbands and children, so she could collect insurance payouts. She was fond of lacing tea with arsenic but was ultimately caught when an autopsy revealed arsenic to be the cause of death. Mary was hung in 1873 for her crimes.

Over 3,000 loaves of bread painted with an arsenic solution, possibly arsenic trioxide mixed with water, were delivered to Stalag 13 in the spring of 1946. Stalag 13 was a former World War II German prison camp that the Allies were using to hold members of the Nazi Elite Guards as they awaited results of the Allied War Tribunal. Jewish survivors of the massacres at the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania, with the help of French chemists, arranged the delivery. It was reported that 2,200 became ill. Although no final death toll was provided, it is believed to have been over a thousand.

Even the queen of murder mysteries, Agatha Christie, loved to use arsenic in her novels. Why was it so popular? Arsenic has many properties that make it an ideal poison. The extreme toxicity of arsenic trioxide means that you only need a very small dose to be effective. It mixes extremely well with everything from water, acids and bases to fat-soluble organic compounds. So far you have something that you just need to mix a minute amount of into just about anything to poison your enemy, and it only gets better.

Arsenic has no odour and no taste. At the most, a person eating something laced with arsenic may get a very vague hint of garlic, which is perfectly normal in a lot of food. Mixed with most food and drink, it remains tasteless and does not affect the texture of the food. You now have something that you only need a small amount of, mixes well with food or drink, gives off no odour, and doesn’t usually affect taste. Starting to see why murderers like it so much?

In addition to all those helpful properties, arsenic poisoning can be drawn out over time in a chronic poisoning or given in a sufficient dose to cause an acute case resulting in death shortly thereafter. Because the symptoms resemble the symptoms of so many other ailments, it can be hard to differentiate poisoning from illness. In chronic cases, the victim may suffer from diarrhea, vomiting, cramping, skin irritation, weight loss and eventually heart failure. In more acute cases, all that may be found is a severely inflamed stomach lining.

Modern forensic science makes it easier to detect arsenic poisoning. As an element, arsenic does not decay and some of it is left behind in the body. Testing hair and nail samples can reveal arsenic poisoning if it is suspected. If it isn’t suspected, there may be no autopsy and the killer may get away with murder. Although it is no longer as easy to get away with, it still remains a popular choice. In 2000, Dr. Michael Swango was convicted of murdering patients. He had been previously convicted of lacing co-workers' coffee and doughnuts with non-lethal amounts of arsenic.

In the world of poisons, arsenic is a perennially popular choice. Its ability to hide in plain sight in food and drink make it an ideal choice for many would-be murderers.  From ancient Rome to modern times, it remains a favourite in the world of literature and many, many real-life stories. 

Tweet
More about this author: Heather Brennan

From Around the Web




ARTICLE SOURCES AND CITATIONS
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://chemsee.com/poison-detection/poison-detection-resources/chemnote-arsenic-poisoning/
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://chemeducator.org/sbibs/s0007002/spapers/720051rb.htm
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/arsenic/review.php
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/arsenic/review.php
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://chemeducator.org/sbibs/s0007002/spapers/720051rb.htm
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://chemsee.com/poison-detection/poison-detection-resources/chemnote-arsenic-poisoning/
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://fmwriters.com/Visionback/Vision37/howtopoison.htm
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://chemeducator.org/sbibs/s0007002/spapers/720051rb.htm